First Click: This $1 chip will connect your things to the city for free

February 17th, 2016

“If you build it, he will come,” whispered a disembodied voice in the 1989 fantasy-drama Field of Dreams. In time, Kevin Costner’s character grew convinced that “it” was a baseball field even though the “he” remained a mystery. So Costner plowed under his corn field and built the baseball diamond which he painstakingly tended until the arrival of whatever came next.

The founders of The Things Network (TTN) are playing a similar game. This time, however, “it” is a subscription-free, community-owned LoRaWAN network that now blankets Amsterdam, and the “he” could be any number of possible solutions enabled by the diverse and unimaginably vast array of wireless and battery-operated things coming to our cities.

LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide-Area Network) is a low power, long range, and low bandwidth networking solution that’s ideal for smart cities. At the heart of LoRaWAN is a tiny chip made by Semtech that only costs a buck when purchased in enthusiast quantities. It’s capable of a meager bi-directional data rate between 0.3kbps and 50kbps on either 433MHz, 868MHz (most of Europe), or 915MHz (USA) frequencies. You can think of LoRaWAN as a network for the big "I" Internet of Things (IoT) that’s meant to augment, not replace, the big "I" Internet that connects bandwidth- and power-hungry devices like laptops, servers, and tablets. LoRaWAN is to IoT as 3G/4G is to smartphones.

the things network gif

Imagine living in a neighborhood that notifies you when a parking spot is free, or a nearby charging station for your Chevy Bolt is no longer in use. Imagine garbage cans and dumpsters that alert sanitation crews when they’re nearing capacity, instead of just overflowing onto the sidewalks. Picture a place that sends an alert to your phone when the smoke or CO detectors inside your house sense trouble, or when a window is left open as rain begins to fall. Cities so smart that they will help you locate your lost purse, keys, or umbrella even if you lose them while traveling abroad. That’s the future that TTN is hoping will come to Amsterdam and beyond — without requiring 3G, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth in every device.

A LoRaWAN gateway can speak to tiny, battery-powered LoRaWAN sensors and gizmos from more than 10 miles away (line of sight) or within a few miles if obstructed by the walls of a building. LoRaWAN devices can typically last years without needing new batteries depending upon how frequently they wake to communicate. Fixed sensors can realistically be powered forever with just small solar panel.

The city of Amsterdam was blanketed with LoRaWAN last August using only 10 gateways at a cost of $1,200 dollars each. In just six weeks the community-owned network was funded and implemented by volunteers without the help of a telecommunications company. It’s completely free to use by anyone in the city — no subscription or logins required. And costs are about to drop dramatically in July when TTN starts shipping its $200 LoRaWAN gateway to Kickstarter backers.

The LoRaWAN network in Amsterdam is akin to the internet in the early ’90s just before it exploded with commercial traffic. It’s a place for students, hobbyists, and entrepreneurs to test LoRaWAN’s limitations and begin identifying use cases.

The Things Network founders
Wienke Giezeman (L) and Johan Stokking (R) have been shocked by the community response.

"Right now, developers are exploring the technology to find out what applications work in the wild," said Wienke Giezeman, who co-founded The Things Network with Johan Stokking. "These experiments will determine if they can support viable business cases, which will then be implemented at scale." Giezeman and Stokking expect the first smart city solutions based on LoRaWAN to begin rolling out in 2017. "We’re focused on helping developers create great applications in 2016 and will help them scale in 2017."

Giezeman and Stokking believe that the first LoRaWAN solutions will be championed by governments looking to streamline and enhance city services. These include everything from waste and water management, to crowd control and congestion management in seaports and airports, and along busy roadways. Right now, anything is possible — and that’s half the fun.

Build it and they will come, echoes the voice around the world as LoRaWAN networks take root in Sao Paulo, Boston, Buenos Aires, Kochi, and Sydney. 36 cities are now on the map as TTN’s community-driven campaign goes global. It’s too early to say whether LoRaWAN will experience the explosive growth seen on the internet after the mid 90s. But it’s something — and something will be needed to connect the 2.3 billion IoT devices estimated to be coming to smart cities next year.

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